By Gregory Bayne: Psychologist and Director of TLC Solutions Australia.

Depending on where you live in the world, your city will be somewhere between mid-crisis to the beginning of the emergence from the crisis.  Regardless of where you live or the current crisis state, every one of us are experiencing some form of ‘crisis fatigue’.  We know anecdotally as well as from current evidence that most people around the globe are experiencing increased levels of anxiety, frustration, isolation, stress, uncertainty and guilt as a result of the impact of COVID-19.

To best explain or define ‘crisis fatigue’ I will use a common analogy that has been used throughout the pandemic.  Many organisations and senior leaders have described the situation to their people as ‘we are running a marathon’.  There is absolutely some validity in this analogy as this pandemic is definitely not a sprint, and we will need to pace ourselves well.  But that is the issue.  We have not paced ourselves well.  Most of us have been pushed to the limit over the last few months, both on the home front and the work front.  We are exhausted.

Now that the crisis has reached a peak in many countries and cities around the world, we have this perception that we are nearing the end.  Using the analogy of running a marathon, we are just coming over the top of a hill and are expecting to see the finish line. Instead, we see a sign that says “32Km To Go”!!  We suddenly realise that we have only run 10km and that we are just ¼ of the way through.  We are way off the finish line. But we are already exhausted. We have worked crazy hours to keep up the workload.  We have managed home schooling and working from home, while still doing all the household chores.  We have pushed ourselves to the maximum to get through.  Now, all we can think about is escaping and sleeping.  We are so tired.  This is ‘Crisis Fatigue’. 

We are way off the finish line and have very little left in the tank!!

The big question is: “How do we get through the next six months?”

What do organisations and senior leaders need to be thinking about in terms of supporting their people?  How to leaders motivate and support their people through the next six months?  What do each of us as individuals need to be doing differently to get ourselves through?

It is also critical that senior leaders consider how they want their people to emerge from this crisis.  If we don’t manage the immediate issue of crisis fatigue, we risk people coming away from this crisis in the worst-case scenario emotionally and mentally injured, or most likely exhausted, disengaged and unmotivated.

I share below six practical strategies to reduce the impact of ‘Crisis Fatigue’ and stay well.

Six Practical Strategies to Get Us Through Crisis Fatigue:

1.     Rigorous Recovery

The most critical step to manage crisis fatigue is to establish a rigorous recovery regime.  We essentially need to create recovery moments into every day, every week and every month.  Similar to any elite athlete a training program will incorporate a period of recovery, which could be daily, weekly and at the end of every training cycle.  The length and intensity of the recovery is the only thing that changes.

A daily recovery could be 15mins to 45mins of time where you actively put work and other commitments aside and invest in you.  This could be simply reading a book or is could be a more active recovery of painting or drawing.  Ideally, we want to be engaging a different part of our brain from our standard work or daily tasks. 

This daily recovery will reduce cortisol levels, increase dopamine and serotonin levels, reduce heart rate, and calm our minds.  While 15mins is not going to get you back to the optimal state just yet, it will partly rejuvenate your energy levels and contribute to an improved sleep and ultimately waking up the next day a little more energised.

We also need to incorporate a weekly recovery into our weekly schedule.  This could be an hour or two that you set aside for you.  This would typically involve either exercise, meeting close friends for a coffee or breakfast, going for a walk with your dog, or getting into nature or outside.  I strongly encourage this time to be ‘locked’ into your weekly schedule and be an agreed time with your family.

Then finally we need to establish a monthly recovery that is the same as the recovery week in a four-week training regime.  This monthly recovery could a half-day off work once a month, or perhaps working from home one week in every four, or a week when you reduce your start and finish time at work.  The essence of the monthly recovery is that it is a reduced work-load week.  A week that allows you to catch your breath. 

Along with the daily recovery, the weekly recovery and the monthly recovery you will quickly find your energy levels return to optimum level and you will be able to sustain the required high level of performance far more easily of a sustainable time frame.

2.     Ruthless Prioritisation

One of the most effective strategies to manage any fatigue, but in particular crisis fatigue, is to maximise the efficient use of our energy.  The way to do this is to spend our energy only on the things that are of critical priority.  We need to ruthlessly prioritise all aspects of our lives.

As individuals we need to apply this ruthless prioritisation to both our personal lives and our work on a daily basis.  In other words, ideally, we should be spending ten to fifteen minutes each morning working through what is the highest priority for the day and the planning the schedule around these priorities.  Anything that cannot be done that day are then moved to either another day or de-prioritised.

As teams and organisations, we need to be crystal clear on the critical priorities and proactively de-prioritising all other activities.  Ideally, we should be communicating and assisting each of our team members to have absolutely clarity on their respective priorities and the team priorities. 

We also need to be able to explain the WHY behind a priority as this allows us to then evaluate the incoming priorities and re-prioritise as required. Perhaps most importantly, we need to err on fewer priorities than more.  

3.     Meaningful Connectedness

When an athlete goes out too hard, particularly in a marathon, the end result is they reach a point where lactic acid starts to build up earlier than it should, which results not only in decreased performance but also increased pain.  Similarly, when we experience Crisis Fatigue, we have typically had an increased level of cortisol on a daily basis for an extended period of time which ultimately results in a build-up of cortisol in our body.  AN overload of cortisol has significant negative long-term impacts including increased blood pressure, changes to the way our body metabolises sugars and fats, suppressed immune system and longer healing time.

A way to address this increased level of cortisol is to stimulate the production of OXYTOCIN.  Oxytocin counteracts cortisol.  It improves healing time and the immune response in our body.  It decreases blood pressure.  The way for us to stimulate oxytocin is to have meaningful conversations with close friends, family and colleagues.

The more we engage in regular deep and meaningful (D&M’s) conversations and connections the more oxytocin is released, the more our levels of cortisol are reduced, and the quicker we start recovering from Crisis Fatigue.

Connect in a meaningful way every day.

4.     Deliberate Appreciation

Deliberate Appreciation refers to a daily practice of looking for things in our lives that we can be grateful for.  The latest research and evidence show us that when we deliberately consider what is good in our lives and either verbalise this gratitude or write down what we are grateful for we stimulate both neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin.  Furthermore, gratitude has been shown to stimulate the medial prefrontal cortex which is linked to learning and decision making.  Gratitude has also been shown to reduce pain symptoms and improve sleep.

Essentially, particularly when we are in a state of Crisis Fatigue, we need to proactively and deliberately take a moment each day to consider what we appreciate in our daily lives.  In our family we do this when we sit down for dinner as a family each evening, and we take turns sharing what we are grateful for that day.

Daily deliberate appreciation has a significant impact on our neurochemistry and can significantly improve our emotional state.

5.     Fulfilling Rewards

One of the greatest impacts of Crisis Fatigue is declining motivation.  Motivation is significantly linked to our levels of Dopamine.  While the interaction between reward expectation, actual reward and dopamine production is relatively complex, we do know that when a person proactively sets a goal and an associated constructive reward it stimulates the dopamine pathways in the brain. 

We can significantly increase our motivation by building in daily rewards.  This might be as simple as planning your day and building in regular breaks that include a reward component.  For example, you might reward yourself with a walk through the park at lunch time when you have finished a particular task.  Not only does the reward expectation stimulate dopamine, but once you have achieved that task and go for the walk, we feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

By understanding the impact of behavioural conditioning, we can increase our levels of motivation as well as impact on our levels of dopamine and serotonin.  By shifting motivation, we are more likely to persevere through the feelings of tiredness and work through the Crisis Fatigue successfully.

6.     Critical Control

Finally, when experiencing Crisis Fatigue, we need to manage our thoughts and our negative emotions.  It is extremely easy in this fatigues state to become overwhelmed by negative thoughts e.g. “this is just too hard” or “I can’t handle this any longer”.  These negative thoughts then lead to the negative emotions of anxiety, frustration, stress, and feeling overwhelmed.  And in this state or negative emotion and thought the likelihood of giving up increases significantly.

It is essential that through this time of Crisis Fatigue that we focus very specifically on those things in our life that we have control over.  More specifically, we need to focus on what we NEED to control and not on what we WANT to control. 

In my experience, the primary cause of stress, anxiety and frustration is when people are focusing and trying control things that they WANT to control that are out of their control.  Instead, we need to focus on the things that we NEED control, which are in our control and critical to control.

By focusing on those things that are critical to control and that are in our control, we are able to focus out energy and efforts on things that will make a difference. Which then results in us achieving more, feeling a sense of satisfaction and achievement, and starts a positive cycle and momentum moving forward.

In Summary

Crisis Fatigue is real.  Right now, across the globe, people are experiencing Crisis Fatigue that is impacting on all aspects of their lives.  It is a significant risk to businesses and if not taken seriously will have significant negative consequences for both individuals and organisations.  However, if senior leaders recognise the risk if Crisis Fatigue and wish to address the risk, there are a couple of relatively simple but highly impactful strategies that can be easily implemented to address the looming Crisis Fatigue.

If you or your organisation are recognising signs of Crisis Fatigue then we recommend that you seek professional guidance from qualified and experienced Psychologists who will be able to assist with the development of specific strategies and actions to address the concerns.

If you wish to contact us for further information or guidance then please do not hesitate to contact me.

Please feel free to share this article if you think one of your colleagues or friends would benefit from this.


Copyright © TLC Solutions Australia 2019

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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